Women in Tech: Is the Tide Turning and is Sponsorship the Key to Success?

Posted by Niamh Vaughan

There has been a lot of coverage around the challenges faced by “women in tech” and while it is clear that there is still plenty of room for improvement there are some encouraging signs that the tide is turning.

Women in Tech: Is the Tide Turning and is Sponsorship the Key to Success? Image

I recently attended a Coder Dojo event in Paris and was delighted to see 50:50 girls and boys working together on their projects. It seems that for the under twelves, at least, the “question of women in tech” doesn’t even arise. 

I am also proud to work for a tech company that has so many women in senior roles (The UK and Ireland MDProduct Strategy Director and  Group Operations Director).

As an Oracle Partner, we also appreciate the work being done by Oracle to promote equality through the Oracle Women’s Leadership Network and of course to see Safra Catz at the very top table.


Mark Fenton
       Mark Fenton

One strategy being adopted by companies to ensure that there are more women in leadership positions is sponsorship. Sponsorship seeks to help women overcome one of the main obstacles to career success —  lack of exposure. We wanted to learn more, so we recently spoke to Mark Fenton FCA who is founder of MASF Consulting, a specialist advisory firm focusing on diversity and inclusion. www.inclusionofdiversity.com.


Why has progress been so slow in getting more women to the top table in companies?

Mark Fenton: There are many men (and some women) who believe gender equality in the workplace is a zero-sum game. For example, if women are to win, men must lose. Men often feel disengaged from the inequality problem too because issues relating to gender do not concern them. Further, when men do generally get involved, it is to ‘fix’ the problem by encouraging women to behave in the same way that men do in the workplace.

With such a high socio-cultural mountain to climb, it is no wonder that progress has been painfully slow towards gender equality at work. Furthermore, the traditional talent programmes (most commonly packaged as ‘mentoring’) have not delivered the necessary results in terms of the recognition, professional development and career progression of women.

Why is this, and what can be done to correct it?

Mark Fenton: A mentor can empower a person to see a possible future and believe it can be obtained, but many mentoring programmes fail because the discussion surrounding such empowerment doesn’t generally apply in real life. As E.M. Forster put it, “Spoon feeding, in the long run, teaches us nothing except the shape of the spoon.”

Mentoring is restrictive as it involves talking to just one individual and, more often than not, expectations are not met regarding mentee belief and mentee exposure. Exposure is the recipe; sponsorship provides the ingredients.
Studies have shown that there are three principle levers to career success and their weighting is not as you might expect.

  • One’s professional performance (i.e. how you do your job) is important. However, in modern businesses with sophisticated talent attraction techniques, it accounts for just 10%. After all, your company expects you to be excellent – that is why you were hired in the first place.
  • More important is your professional image (i.e. how you present yourself in the workplace). Being assured, trustworthy and open to change is central to your success and this impacts on just under one-third of your success.
  • Perhaps surprisingly, it is your exposure that holds the lion’s share of future opportunity and advancement. It is not what you know or indeed who you know. It is more about who knows you and what you can do.

Historically, men have been expert at cultivating their exposure levels through informal and male-stereotypical networking environments. Conventionally, women have less flexibility (and perhaps desire) to embrace these traditions. They also remain more risk-aware of their abilities, whereas men are generally openly confident about their suitability for a new opportunity.

In terms of exposure, sponsorship is more involved than mentoring regarding both the sponsor and sponsored – both are accountable for the process and its outcomes.

What makes for a good Sponsorship Programme?

Mark Fenton: The best programmes last for at least 12 months, include job-shadowing, resilience-coaching and are supported by clear metrics. Sponsorship takes mentoring beyond the tandem partnership and into the boardroom and/or management meetings. Sponsors talk to and about those sponsored and therefore increase their corporate exposure and can provide feedback on unseen opportunities for growth. Sponsors also benefit from the learning opportunity that comes with an intense, frank and extensive personal and professional interaction.

What are the benefits of Sponsorship Programmes?

Mark Fenton: The impact of sponsorship can be immediate and impressive. A recent series of sponsorship programmes within a Euro Stoxx 50 firm doubled the ratio of women at the top layer of management in just two years and demonstrated that an overwhelming majority of senior female promotions were directly linked to participation in such programmes.

Sponsorship is not about talking to me; it is talking about me. It is the key to unlocking the main obstacle to women’s career success – a lack of exposure.

Mark Fenton FCA is founder of MASF Consulting, a specialist advisory firm focusing on diversity and inclusion. www.inclusionofdiversity.com

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